One lingering close-up shot defines Tomas Alfredson’s remarkable Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. For a film shorn in dishonesty and subterfuge, it is a sequence in which there are no obstacles between the viewer and their hero, George Smiley. Even Smiley’s trademark spectacles are removed from the equation.
While presented as a complex tale, the plot of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is ultimately rather basic; there is a mole at the top and its one of four men. Smiley must uncover which one is the mole. To delve further in to the actual story of the film is unnecessary at this stage. It would serve only to hamper the enjoyment of any potential viewer, and is unnecessary.
Following an intense opening prologue, in which sweat is quite literally dripping from the assembled figures, we enter in to the world of “The Circus”, the codename given to those at the top of the ranks of the MI6. The old, slow nature of the situation sums up the tone of the film entirely. It’s an old fashioned world, not so much gentleman spy as ruthless double agent. Everything about the film evokes a time gone by, be it the horn based score, the “dirty” cinematography presenting the early-1970’s as the visually unremarkable place that they were, or the pace of performances. The cinematography and pacing of the scenes recalls Jean-Pierre Melville’s post-1965 slate, with the drawn out mid-shots of Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samourai, films whose visual focus come courtesy of the haze of a lit cigarette, instantly coming to mind. This pre-cell phone world is almost alien against a modern, digital landscape.
We are introduced to the central protagonist of George Smiley over the course of 12 months, as the calendar is played out in staggered moments as the films opening credits slowly unfold. We see the man’s day to day post-retirement routine play out, a once exciting lifestyle (which we can only imagine) reduced to shopping trips and swimming in the local park. Paranoia, no doubt brought on by his past life and who he was and what he knew controls his moves. The tab of wood that he places within his doorway when he leaves his house sums up this overreaching emotional disorder. The archetypically cinematic “Quiet Man”, Smiley is as much of an enigma at the end of the feature as he is when the opening titles finish rolling. Everything we need to know, and everything we will learn about this man is done so in this opening sequence. It is his role to observe and decree a theatrical truth; essentially we don’t need to know anything else (and this is notably referred to in a moment of meta during one of the film’s climactic revelations). Most notably perhaps, we never see the face of Smiley’s absent wife, a figure who is the source of his most personal unraveling within the picture.
The film is presented at a distance, an obvious analog for the world at hand, with windows, cars and crowds all stepping between the viewer and the on-screen focal point. Which brings me back to that close up that I referred to in my opening statement, which I so boldly declared as to define Alfredson’s film. For a brief, unwavering moment the truth is revealed, Smiley’s eyes naked from behind his heavy spectacles. It’s as close to an explicit visual reveal that we get in the film, and is a powerful moment.
As such the world of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is hugely cinematic, a feat many deemed impossible thanks to the manner in which the source material unfolds on the page. Based on John le Carré’s 1974 novel, the sheer concept of adapting the mammoth tome in to anything resembling a two hour feature film would seem like an unlikely task, yet Alfredson pulls it off. The plot is satisfyingly condensed, and as a viewer unversed in the original novel the film didn’t ever feel inaccessible or lacking in any respect, nor did it feel like an over-simplified shell of a film (as many adaptations usually do).
Ultimately Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a film about compulsion and fixation. As a commentary on cinema these kind of abstract detective stories have always made for neat analogs to the cinematic cause. As the lives of the central figures become enveloped by the situation at hand, one cannot help but think of Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men, David Fincher’s Zodiac, or even Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and all those other great films that have revolved around absorption and obsession.